Habiak gives trees kid-glove treatment
SOUTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Patience is a needed personality trait for farmers who specialize in Christmas trees and pumpkins.
Middlesex County farmer Alan Habiak, 63, grew up on a potato, wheat and hay farm. Later, his family switched to soybeans and wheat and got out of the hay business.
In 1991, Habiak put in his first Christmas trees off Deans Rhode Hall Road here, less than two football fields from the New Jersey Turnpike.
“It takes about seven years from the time we put a tree in the ground to harvest,” he said one cold Saturday in early December as dozens of cars and vans pulled up throughout the afternoon with people seeking fresh air, the chance to stretch their legs, and claim their own hand-picked Christmas trees.
“It depends on the species,” he related from the warmth of his pickup truck. We have blue spruce that might take 12 or 15 years and in another section over there we have Douglass firs, they take seven or eight years.”
“Seedlings are just like humans,” he said. “They’re all different, some of them grow at faster rates and they all don’t grow consistently. Soil and water and nutrient uptake can vary a great deal.”
He typically opens his Christmas tree farm to the public on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, and he often sells about 400 trees in December.
His nephew and sisters and family friends are involved on weekends to help people choose and cut the tree that works best for their respective housing situation. He’ll bring in some pre-cut trees from neighboring farmers so he doesn’t have to cut so many of his own trees.
“I don’t have thousands of trees out here,” Habiak said, noting he’s going to be working on his volume of pumpkin sales in coming seasons, “yet I have more customers buying trees than I have customers buying pumpkins.” Most trees sell for about $60. He grows and sells Colorado blue spruce, Douglas fir, Norway spruce and concolor firs.
The family’s farm was founded by his grandfather, John Kuhn. In his youth, Habiak worked closely with his grandfather and great uncle, Fred Kuhn, and learned farming from them. In the 1930’s his grandfather bought another 70 acres, but then in 1951, the New Jersey Turnpike came through.
A bunch of land was taken through eminent domain. The roadway was expanded again in the 1970s, ’80s and early 2000s. Some land off Deans Rhode Hall Road on the other side of the Turnpike had to be sold off after eminent domain split the acreage.
Habiak and his older brother and sisters were raised on the farm. Working with their uncle and grandfather, “we did everything from working the ground to planting and irrigating. I don’t know if potatoes are considered a vegetable or a field crop, but for the most part it was potatoes and grain.”
Of his youth on the farm, he said once he and his brother and sisters were big enough to reach the pedals on the truck, “you were out there, picking up potatoes, straw or hay.
Back then, they had hand throttles so they put the truck in low-low gear, and as long as you could drive straight, you’d be out there working. I must have been 7 or 8 years old and my sisters did the same thing, too.”
His father never got that involved with farming and worked at the Hercules munitions plant in Sayreville.
“My grandfather and my dad all had big gardens and my dad always hustled potatoes over at Hercules,” he recalled.
“It was the late ’60s or early ’70s that we got out of potatoes. Price had something to do with it, but for us we didn’t have the labor force we used to have. We had some labor that lived here on the farm,” Habiak said, pointing out a patch of land facing the Turnpike where a farm house used to stand.
“We had people that worked on the farm full-time back in the day. Even though my dad wasn’t a farmer, he helped out. We all just pitched in and got it done.”
Habiak also grows field corn for use in margarine and ethanol and he partners that operation with friend and neighboring farmer Jimmy Etsch of Monroe Township.
Because of the disruptions from turnpike construction projects, the farm has evolved several times over the years, he noted.
Currently, Habiak Farms amounts to 105 acres, bordered by woods on one side, Deans Rhode Hall Road on another side and the Turnpike on a third side.
Habiak’s wife, Jan, works for the Arc of the United States, helping disabled citizens in a teaching capacity and his daughter Keeley and son Reed also help out on the farm.
He grows about 15 acres of pumpkins each fall and tries to wholesale many of them.
“People say they love coming here, it’s a low-key operation and some years there’s a lot of people buying pumpkins and some years it isn’t, so with Facebook, hopefully I can build up the pumpkin business again.”
About half of his customers cut their own trees while the other half have Habiak’s friends and family working on the farm in December cut the trees for them.
Habiak has been involved as an officer with the Middlesex County Board of Agriculture and the Middlesex County Fair for decades.
He lives nearby in the suburban Kendall Park section of South Brunswick and studied agriculture and horticulture at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa.
“Trees are a long-term commitment. Once you start growing, you have to look after them,” he said.
“I come over here and check these trees every day of year. You’re not pruning them all year long, but I don’t have irrigation out here,” he related, noting he has to monitor for pests, drainage and the overall health of each tree.
“Once you put pumpkins in the ground, you have to keep an eye on them every day. It’s short-term in getting your payoff, but you’re working on it all year long.”
What separates him from the rest of the pack of Christmas tree farms around central New Jersey?
“Our operation is small and manageable and I look at other farms and see how other family members have to get involved,” he said, “to me, the big operations take away from the mom-and-pop flavor that we offer here. Here, I recognize the faces of a lot of my regular customers.”
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